Innovating for Development: The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s Technological Trajectory

About the author: Kyle Van Rensselaer ’20 was a summer intern at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in Geneva, Switzerland. He is a rising second-year student in the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program.

Kyle Van Rensselaer ’20 and other UNCTAD summer interns in front of the UN headquarters.

I’ve come to expect it every few weeks: Geneva’s nighttime skies shift from clear and quiet one minute to stormy and chaotic the next. Watching the rain and lightning from my apartment window, I can almost imagine how Mary Shelley must have felt two centuries ago when an unseasonably wet and gray summer trapped her in her vacation home, Villa Diodati, on Lake Geneva’s southern bank. Every time the sky lights up and thunder smashes against my window, I think of Shelley’s scene of Victor Frankenstein and his monstrous creation silhouetted on an icy Alpine mountaintop. The novel, “Frankenstein,” published in 1818, studied the Victorian era’s anxieties about scientific advances and their impact on the fabric of society. Such ideas of technological change and uncertainty are not unfamiliar to us living in 2019.

Dr. Frankenstein had plenty of faults, but few can argue that the man was not, at his core, an innovator. I’ve also been reflecting on innovation this summer — though not quite in the same way. My approach to innovation has instead revolved around educational technologies and how they can best be harnessed to serve policymakers and officials in developing countries. My internship at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has had me investigate and analyze the process of technological change in a large, multifaceted organization. The UN must work to keep up with the rapid pace of digital and scientific advances, but its complex organizational structure and dwindling resources complicate even seemingly straightforward processes of change. On top of that, the uncertainty of how emerging tech will affect the future international system makes it very difficult for UNCTAD to forecast how to allocate funding and invest in long-term success.

Outside of the UNCTAD offices in Geneva, Switzerland.

My supervisor, the head of the Knowledge Development Branch (KDB) within UNCTAD, has been focusing on a specific area of technology: educational tools that enhance learner engagement in classroom environments. She has the medium-term goal of increasing the effectiveness of UNCTAD’s capacity-building courses and the long-term goal of establishing a framework by which the branch can keep up-to-date with the fluctuating digital landscape. In 2016, the branch established a partnership with a team from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), whose educational apps SpeakUp and Graasp represent a possible innovative resource for UNCTAD’s regional courses.

One of my major projects this summer was to prepare an internal organizational readiness assessment to evaluate what kind of value EPFL’s two apps can bring to UNCTAD programs. I aimed to answer a few questions as completely as possible: what do staff members need the most from any process of organizational change? Are the apps perceived as useful in the first place? And how can KDB leadership develop an innovation strategy that generates the most stakeholder buy-in? These are issues that any manager or business leader might encounter at some point — but in the context of the UN, a funding-deficient environment in which staff must navigate diplomatic as well as bureaucratic constraints, organizational change and innovation implementation will have to rely on methods that deviate from private-sector (or even public-sector) strategies.

Kyle Van Rensselaer ’20 in a UNCTAD meeting room.

To understand UNCTAD’s institutional framework, I needed to develop an insider’s perspective that built on my preconceived notions of what the UN does. My supervisor encouraged me to attend as many meetings and forums as possible, which enabled me to learn about UNCTAD’s day-to-day functions and hear from global experts on hot topics such as blockchain’s implications for national security, illicit trade flows and the effects of trade policy on global inequalities. Some particularly insightful events were the Trade and Development Board and the UNCTAD Summer School program, both of which revolved around multilateralism, trade and climate change.

Attending these seminars not only exposed me to new ways of thinking about the problems facing the international system but also affirmed the United Nations’ mission to guarantee equitable and sustainable development for all nations. This mission, I’ve come to realize, is a crucial piece of the puzzle I’ve been working on all summer. Uncertainty and risks that accompany change are damaging, to be sure, but the costs — for both developing and developed countries — of not being adaptable to the winds of change could be monumental. Technology doesn’t have to be a Frankenstein’s Monster — it can be an ally rather than an adversary.

The educational tech project will continue to grow long after I return to Stanford, so I can’t learn the answers to some of my biggest questions just yet. However, I hope that I’ve at least helped to plant the seeds for an effective network of cooperation and modernization for UNCTAD and its partner organizations.

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